What’s this all about, Part 2: Everybody’s Libraries

In my previous post, I discussed “citizen librarianship” and the rise of online library services that go beyond the established library organizations and practices. And I claimed that the most promising future of libraries involved understanding and building up “everybody’s libraries”, as a collective group and as a concept.

The collective group is easy enough to understand. It’s just the sum of all the library content and services usable by the global community. The bigger this is, the more we can benefit.

But what do I mean by “everyone’s libraries” as a concept? I mean a group of characteristics that I think will describe and build up the best libraries of the future. “Everybody’s libraries”, as I see it, includes

  • Libraries everybody can use. We’ve been sharing information with the online world at large almost since the day we set up computer networks. (The work of Project Gutenberg, for instance, started over 37 years ago.) Openly accessible information can be used by anyone it reaches, enlightening the world, making it easier to build on old work to create new knowledge, and enabling new kinds of production and commerce. Open-access libraries become even more usable when they make their information easy to find and repurpose, and when they accommodate varying languages, abilities, and education levels. For various reasons, not everything can be used by everyone all the time, but many of the barriers to access today can and should be removed.
  • Libraries everybody can put their work in. Libraries need to accommodate whatever information is important to their communities, from whatever source, and in whatever form, whether that be books, serials, images, multimedia, ephemera, or any of the forms of electronic information introduced in the Internet age. Many libraries are rightly selective about what they acquire, but we shouldn’t limit what they are able to select to benefit their users.
  • Libraries everybody can build. This includes the “citizen’s” libraries people build themselves and the established libraries that people contribute to. I started a kind of library 14 years ago as a computer science graduate student. It serves the Internet as a whole, and I continue to grow it. I also now work for another library that serves a smaller, university-based community with a broader range of collections and services (including some that are enhanced by our users’ contributions). The work I do with one library often enhances the work I do with the other. Many other people are now also building their own libraries, with the help of various tools for collecting, describing, organizing, preserving, and providing access to the information their communities need.
  • Libraries everybody can share. This is a crucial characteristic, distinct from but dependent on the characteristics above. In the past, if my library bought a new book or introduced a new service, it improved the lot of my library’s constituents, but did little or nothing for anyone else’s library. That no longer has to be true. My library, if it’s willing and able, can now share its content, its metadata, and even much of its services and technical infrastructure with any number of other libraries. The costs of turning local resources into shared resources can be very small; the benefits to the users of all these libraries can be very large. In this kind of environment, the improvements that I make in my library can also be turned into improvements in your library, and in someone else’s library– ultimately, in everybody’s libraries.

Most of these characteristics assume lots of libraries, large and small, independently managed but sharing whatever collections, services, knowledge, and other resources they see fit. People sometimes imagine that one day everyone will just use one big “universal library”, containing all knowledge, and run by some overarching organization, government, or corporation. I don’t think that’s going to happen, and I hope it doesn’t. There are too many ways that people want to collect and use information for various purposes. The library landscape of the future should support the construction, cooperation, and use of many kinds of libraries– physical, virtual, and hybrid– serving many kinds of communities and needs.

Everybody’s libraries, then, include libraries for everybody, by everybody, shared with everybody, and about everything. No one library is all things to all people, but collectively, they can be much greater than any single library can be. And if we understand and support everybody’s libraries (as I hope to encourage with this blog), we can make each of our own libraries better serve their users.

About John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library strategist at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
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